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The Sanctificationist Approach to Culture

This entry is part 20 of 20 in the series

"Christ the Sanctifier of Behavior"

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What is clear from this exploration is that each of the three primary post-Christendom approaches to culture have strengths and weaknesses when compared to the NT’s understanding of culture as behavior. The separatist approach rightly recognizes the fundamental antithesis between belief and unbelief, but it fails to also recognize commonality that exists due to common grace and the fact that even unbelievers sometimes “borrow” a biblical worldview. The transformationalist approach rightly recognizes the reality of common grace on the cultures of unbelievers and the need for Christians to express their values in every sphere of life, but they do so to the neglect of any real antithesis in the cultures themselves. Perhaps the two-kingdom approach is closest to the NT perspective, with its balance of both antithesis and commonality, but it fails to emphasize that a Christian’s involvement in the culture should manifest his Christian values and actually has evangelistic impact.1

Understanding culture as behavior provides a fourth alternative that combines the strengths of each view and protects against their respective weakness. This view, which could be called the sanctificationist approach to culture,2 simply seeks to apply what the Bible has to say about behavior to every area of the Christian’s life. A Christian is to be holy in all of his conduct; the Holy Spirit uses the Bible to progressively sanctify that conduct each day. A Christian does not have to overly concern himself with how to interact with the behavior of others; he simply lives out his Christian life according to the precepts found in scripture. When the behavior of unbelievers reflects those same precepts, he will resemble the unbeliever’s culture; when it does not, separation must take place. Nevertheless, in either case, the believer’s good conduct among the unbelievers will shine forth as a beacon of truth to draw them to redemption in Jesus Christ. And when they are redeemed, their culture will change. Perhaps the best NT posture for Christians who are in the world but not of the world is found in 1 Peter 1:17-18: “And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds (ἔργον), conduct yourselves (ἀναστράφητε) with fear throughout the time of your exile, knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways (ἀναστροφῆς) inherited from your forefathers.”

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Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is Chair of the Worship Ministry Department at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

  1. Some two-kingdoms advocates do stress the need for Christian values to influence every aspect of the Christian life, even in the public sphere: “This two-kingdoms doctrine strongly affirms that God has made all things, that sin corrupts all aspects of life, that Christians should be active in human culture, that all lawful cultural vocations are honorable, that all people are accountable to God in every activity, and that Christians should seek to live out the implications of their faith in their daily vocations” (VanDrunen, Living in God’s Two Kingdoms: A Biblical Vision for Christianity and Culture, 14–15). []
  2. This view could rightly be called the transformationalist approach, as long as the transformation means complete change of behavior. Yet since transformation has come to mean little more than adaptation rather than fundamental change, a new term is needed. []

3 Responses to The Sanctificationist Approach to Culture

  1. Very interesting thoughts, Scott. I think your ‘fourth way’ has a lot of merit, and reflects well what the Bible teaches. Given we are to be salt and light and to live in the world as ‘strangers’ (in, but not of it), a mixture of the two-kingdom and transformational (in its original sense of reforming or purifying) seems to reflect the biblical mandate best. As you conclude, “When the behavior of unbelievers reflects those same [Christian] precepts, [the Christian] will resemble the unbeliever’s culture; when it does not, separation must take place.” It is that last sentence that I fully agree with but that, to me, contradicts another statement, i.e. that there are distinctly ‘Christian’ cultural expressions. I will argue that this is not the case and that both Christians and non-Christians are ‘borrowing from the same substance.’

    In Part 16 of this series, you quote Kuyper as saying (and appear to agree) that “Christian values will produce distinctly Christian carpentry, Christian justice, Christian rhetoric, and Christian music, although even unbelievers can do the same because of common grace and if they borrow from the Christian worldview.” Whereas I would agree that we, as a holy nation, should have a distinctly Christian culture overall, I disagree that there can be such a thing as ‘Christian carpentry’ or ‘Christian music’, specifically. Rather, it is the musical choices we make out of the seemingly unlimited offer, and the way we conduct a carpentry business that distinguishes us as Christians. In other words, as John the Baptist said, the soldier should be content with his wages – there is no call to join the ‘Christian’ brigade and start a silo. Likewise, the carpenter should not take more than he deserves for his work, not cheat on his tax return, and do excellent work and be accountable for any work that is not up to standard. Yet, when I look at the house there is absolutely no way of telling whether the carpenter who helped build it was a Christian or not. Likewise, any artifact made by a Christian may look exactly the same as that made by a non-Christian. So there is no Christian art, and by consequence, no Christian music.

    Whereas I understand the argument of common grace or underlying Christian (or Christian-influenced) worldview that impacts on how we do things, I don’t think we can take that thought too far. To claim that all art that happens to conform to Christian values does so only because the artist’s worldview or the principles of his training are somehow influenced by Christian thought seems too simplistic in this post-enlightenment world.

    Back to the field of music, there are sounds, harmonies, melodies, rhythms, and structures that can be combined in infinite ways. Yet, I don’t think anyone could say by hearing a piece that it expresses or communicates distinctly Christian values (speaking of the musical form without the lyrics) – we can only say it is harmonious, beautiful, etc. but these qualities are not exclusively Christian and are therefore no reliable identifiers. Musical form can be compatible with Christian values but it will never be intrinsically ‘Christian’, which can already be seen by the fact that many Christian materials are also used in the secular realm and vice versa. By elimination,

    # Christian art cannot mean ‘made by Christians’ since a non-Christian could produce art that is indistinguishable from that of a Christian, and a Christian artist may not be truly a Christian even though he claims to be.

    # Christian art cannot mean ‘made for Christian use only’ since historically there has been a mixture of uses for the same art (e.g., the German national anthem is also a hymn, or a picture is not Christian just because it is hung up in a Church).

    # Christian art cannot mean that it conveys a Christian message since e.g. music (without lyrics) cannot clearly communicate Christian or non-Christian messaging. Artists with a Christian worldview may produce art that does not carry any Christian messaging or has no value for Christian uses, or someone without the Christian worldview may produce art suitable for Christian use – is it therefore still Christian art?

    # Beauty is also not a criterion since it can be used for Muslim, Hindu or secular purposes and does not identify anything as ‘Christian’.

    Musical form cannot be categorized as Christian, Islamic, or anything of that kind. Music can be categorized as violent, lively, sweet, monotonous, etc. and this all comes into play when deciding when it is appropriate for Christian use (for leisure, art, or at church). What we should therefore concentrate on is whether music is compatible with the message we want to convey, be that Christian or secular. There is art, and also deviant art if it contradicts societal ethics, but there is no such thing as ‘Christian art’, even though we keep using the term to distinguish certain genres mainly based on content. That is, however, only to facilitate marketing and identification of products. Music can become uniquely Christian only once we combine form and content, and even then we could have a big discussion about the content in terms of whether it is really orthodox or not. None of our art is inspired like the Bible, and all is affected by our depravity. It then becomes a matter of degrees (one song is more Christian than another), which really only complicates the discussion. Since it is impossible to define Christian art, we should not use the term.

    In summary, Christians and non-Christians alike work by the same rules of the trade and can strive for excellence in the same way (though the motivations would be different). We should abandon the duality between Christian and secular occupation and art, which will also help us recognize that a Christian lawyer or engineer has the same value before God as a theologian, i.e. the latter should not be considered to have a higher calling that deserves special reverence or church support, whereas so-called ‘secular’ occupations are seen as less admirable (Tim Keller provides some insight on this aspect at


    Someone’s Christianity will be visible more in how he lives and does business than in the product of his hands. Common grace, here, merely means that we have some kind of a social compact or common understanding that leads people to create artifacts and art that may be compatible with the Christian worldview. Christians are called to make a contribution here and by delivering high-quality artistry, raise the bar for others and co-shape the prevailing preferences of the societies they live in. Yet, Christians also borrow from the same substance (rules of design, aesthetics, moods created by music, etc.) as everyone else. As such, Christian messaging can be combined with art that has Christian and other origins, as long as the art objectively enhances the message.

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